K-pop agency SM Entertainment debuted their newest girl group, æspa, with their first single “Black Mamba” on Nov. 17. As the agency’s first girl group in six years, hopes have been especially high for the group’s success. Though æspa has surpassed all expectations, their debut was accompanied with concerns regarding the group’s virtual avatar concept.
æspa consists of four members: Karina, Giselle, Winter and Ningning. The name “æspa” refers to the group’s unique concept, in which all four members have a virtual persona that they can interact with in a place called “FLAT.” The “æ” in æspa stands for “avatar” and “experience” while the “spa” refers to the word “aspect.”
Their corresponding virtual avatars, respectively named æ-Karina, æ-Giselle, æ-Winter, and æ-Ningning, all appear in the music video of “Black Mamba.” “Black Mamba” is an electro pop song and has a catchy melody that its vibrant neon music video brings to life. The music video immediately brings viewers into æspa’s world, as the members sing about wanting to encounter their online avatars and know their exact identities. The members share connections with their virtual counterparts, indicating the multidimensional stories the group is to tell through their music.
Fitting for the well-awaited debut of a group under SM Entertainment’s wing, the video has a massive production value, and the members’ performances boast their great talents. Additionally, æspa received a “debut stage” that featured the members with their virtual personas, which the song centers around. The song’s title refers to an entity that prevents the real-life members from meeting and discovering more about their online avatars.
“The storytelling is about how they interact and communicate through the digital world, a space between reality and virtuality,” founder of SM Entertainment Lee Soo-Man said about æspa’s virtual concept.
æspa’s reality-virtuality concept follows the great success of virtual YouTubers (VTubers), Vocaloids and League of Legends’ K/DA, which are all popular virtual entertainment personalities, and foreshadows the future of virtual reality in the K-pop industry.
Though the integration of technology and reality is inevitable, æspa’s concept raises many concerns among K-pop fans. Various fans have expressed worry over the objectification and sexualization of the members, who are exceptionally young. The eldest, Karina, was born on April 11, 2000, and the youngest, Ningning, was born on Oct. 23, 2002. Despite the harsh, strict hierarchy of the K-pop industry, the real-life members are able to have some autonomy over their outfits and actions as performers; they can choose to refrain from actions that make them uncomfortable. The avatars, however, are a different story since they are created and controlled by other individuals, such as concept artists, programmers and directors, involved in the project. These individuals may not even collaborate with the members and ask for their approval on any actions associated with their virtual avatars, allowing for sexual or generally not-safe-for-work (NSFW) content to be produced of the young members.
The avatars are also much easier for creepy fans to sexualize since the online characters can be much more easily reproduced than the real members. These virtual avatars have the real-life members appear as partial online characters themselves — greatly detached from the real world. Thus, the virtual side of æspa can be more easily objectified and placed into unsettling, NSFW scenarios, such as Vocaloids. This allows NSFW content to be more easily “justified,” as the content does not directly depict real people.
Merging online and real-life spaces together pushes the boundaries for entertainment and technological advancement. However, content creators, whether they be agencies or solo freelancers, must always be aware of the consequences of their products. The unparalleled access granted by the online sphere allows much more creative freedom. Artists can experiment with concepts in new technological ways, though this freedom can be greatly abused. Personal boundaries, such as that of the æspa members, can be violated without their consent or even their knowledge, contributing to the persisting issues of sexualization and objectification of women that is prominent in the entertainment industry.
æspa’s concept, despite its admirable ambition, serves as the members’ own “Black Mamba.” The members may suffer intensely from sexualization and harassment, preventing them from chasing their dreams of becoming great K-pop stars. Such mistreatment has always been a reality prevalent in the industry, as rigorous training and intense physical standards neglect both trainees’ and stars’ health, and the freedom given to creepy “fans” by the online avatars only adds to the harassment of æspa’s members. For the great potential of æspa’s musical storytelling, SM Entertainment pays a grave price: the members’ comfort and health.
Beatrice Malvar is an Entertainment Intern for the fall 2020 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.